Several years ago, left-wing cartoonist Ted Rall published a cartoon mocking the "terror widows"—the bereaved of the Sept. 11 attacks as well as Marianne Pearl, the widow of kidnapped and slain journalist Daniel Pearl—as a bunch of greedy and shallow attention-seekers. The outrage was universal. A number of press outlets, including The New York Times website, pulled the cartoon. Subsequently, when the Times and The Washington Post stopped carrying Rall's work, conservatives called it a victory for decency.
Now, the right has its own Ted Rall in the infamous Ann Coulter. In her new book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," Coulter takes a whack at the "Jersey Girls," four Sept. 11 widows who have been highly critical of the Bush administration. She refers to them as "self-obsessed women" who "believe the entire country was required to marinate in their exquisite personal agony," and then concludes with this zinger: "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arrazies. I have never seen people enjoying their husband's death so much."
A number of conservatives, including prominent Republican blogger and radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, have denounced Coulter's statement. Unfortunately, many others have rallied to her defense. Radio and Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity has mildly suggested that she may have gone too far, but has avoided condemning her outright and has given her plenty of airtime on his show.
Bill O'Reilly, the host of the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor," has been harshly critical of Coulter's comments. Yet several of his conservative guests vigorously defended her. Republican strategist Karen Hanretty opined, "I think that if you read some of what Ann Coulter is saying and you put it into context, I don't think it's mean-spirited… a lot of it is sort of tongue-in-cheek. And Ann's own personal style probably wouldn't be my style… but it's certainly Ann's style." Conservative activist Sandy Rios asserted that "while everybody else is making nice, Ann's words are laser-focused on truth… they are like a clarion wake-up call." Author and activist David Horowitz called her "a national treasure."
Even O'Reilly has tempered his criticism by saying that, unlike left-wing satirist Al Franken, "Coulter doesn't lie." Yet the website spinsanity.org, equally tough on prevaricators whether on the left or right, has documented a number of egregious distortions and misstatements in Coulter's earlier books, "Treason" and "Slander."
O'Reilly also argues that despite her hyperbole and nastiness, Coulter makes a valid point about liberals using sympathetic victims, such as the "Jersey Girls" or bereaved mother-turned-antiwar-activist Cindy Sheehan, as "human shields" to deflect criticism of their arguments. But, as New York Times columnist John Tierney points out, that's a legitimate point that applies across the political spectrum. Republicans have used war veterans, mothers of slain soldiers, and Sept. 11 widows to bolster their moral authority as well.
Parents of murdered children have often turned their grief to activism for tougher anti-crime policies, generally a conservative cause. One might add that Coulter and her ilk waged political war on Bill Clinton using his alleged victims—such as Paula Jones and Juanita Broderick—as their own "human shields."
Besides, just how effective is the "liberal infallibility" of victims? Sheehan got plenty of criticism for her extreme political statements. Even columnist Michelle Malkin, who offers a partial defense of Coulter's argument, asks, "When was the last time anyone paid attention to the Jersey Girls?"
Precisely. Coulter, however, commands plenty of attention. Of course, the attacks in Coulter's book are indeed her "style."
In the past, she has crudely mocked disabled war veterans whose politics she dislikes. She is also notorious for such witticisms as, "My only regret with [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building," and "Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do." For years, Coulter's fans have dismissed such hateful comments as satirical hyperbole. As author Bernard Goldberg has remarked, "Coulter always has that twinkle in her eye when she calls some liberal 'pond scum.' "
While Ted Rall is a marginal figure on the left, Coulter is a star of right-wing punditry and a regular speaker at conferences of the Conservative Political Action Committee. One would think that her vile remarks about the Sept. 11 widows would have given conservatives a perfect opportunity to distance themselves from her venom. Apparently, they have no desire to do so. As someone who considers herself right of center, it makes me ashamed to be on the same side.